The Pit, London EC2
Opened 9 November, 2011
We often praise the way that its physical immediacy makes live performance a deeper, richer experience than film. But that same immediacy can, disappointingly often, mean that nuances and discretions available to the more distantiated eye of the film camera are lost or discarded in a stage version. This is the case with the Nottara Theatre of Bucharest’s adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme film Festen.
It is partly a consequence of the logistics of stage adaptation. Limiting the action at this family reunion to the single location of the dining room and making events more or less continuous give fewer opportunities for sidelights on the various family members which might contextualise Christian’s announcement, by way of a 60th-birthday toast, that his father had repeatedly raped him and his now-dead twin sister during their childhood. However, director Vlad Massaci has also chosen to clarify, i.e. simplify, the moral and factual picture. Much of the uneasiness generated by the film in its middle phase stems from our uncertainty as to whether Christian’s accusation is true or a figment from his history of mental disturbance, then from similar doubt as to how the family will respond. Here, regular appearances by Linda’s ghost lend credence to his claim from the beginning. So does the performance of Alexandru Repan as their father Helge: in his white tuxedo, cummerbund and matching patent leather shoes, he is not just a paterfamilias but a Godfather, exuberant but also menacing. It is easier to believe such a man would be an abuser than to side with him against Ion Grosu’s far from saintly but still palpably martyred Christian. Massaci’s programme notes hint at a significance in Christian’s naming, as they paint the piece as a portrait of a society waiting for someone such as him to speak out truthfully, after which they are compelled to take the right position.
Massaci retains a nod towards the work’s filmic origins by having a video camera shoot the “celebratory” dinner and the succession of family speeches; in a deep thrust staging on three sides, this also helps those banks of the audience who may not be able to see directly the expression of a given speechmaker or listener. It is an adroitly crafted ensemble piece, but this is one of those occasions when cross-media comparisons are invidious.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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